TUESDAY MORNING UPDATE:
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, 31, arrived in White Mountain (mile 921) at 7:52 a.m. Tuesday with 12 dogs and an hours-long lead over Nic Petit of Girdwood.
Still, if the last day of racing has proven anything, it's that Iditarod fortunes can change in a hurry. Petit led for much of the 1,000-mile race and held a substantial lead of his own as recently as mile 777 in Shaktoolik.
A wrong turn soon erased Petit's advantage, and Ulsom marched past. (Watch the Facebook Live interview from White Mountain, above, to hear Petit describe what happened in his own words.)
Ulsom reached White Mountain with Petit trailing about 25 miles behind. All mushers must take an 8-hour rest at this riverside village before the final push to Nome.
A large lead into White Mountain typically guarantees an Iditarod win. Except when it doesn't. Dallas Seavey came from behind in 2014 to defeat Jeff King and Aliy Zirkle by pushing through a windstorm that sidelined other racers.
Ulsom has rocketed to the top of the Iditarod field in just his sixth attempt. In 2013 he reached Nome faster than any rookie in Iditarod history and has placed in the top seven every year since.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey is currently racing in third place. His son Dallas skipped this year's race. The two mushers have won every Iditarod since John Baker of Kotzebue claimed the title in 2011.
In this Sunday interview, Ulsom said he had to leave one of his main lead dogs behind on the Yukon River but that a dog he calls "The Russian" has stepped up along the trail:
Bering Sea mix-up: Ulsom grabs Iditarod lead when Petit veers off trail
UNALAKLEET — A new leader emerged Monday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race after Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit lost his way in bad weather on the Bering Sea ice.
As Petit backtracked on the trail amid blowing snow, Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom surged ahead and was the first to reach Koyuk, 171 miles away from the finish line in Nome.
Ulsom, a regular top-10 finisher in the 1,000-mile race, left the checkpoint at 5:52 p.m. Monday with 12 dogs, leaving one behind. Petit followed at 6:13 p.m. with a team of 11 dogs.
Defending champion Mitch Seavey drove his nine-dog team into Koyuk in third place, nearly three hours after Ulsom and two hours after Petit. He left at 9:08 p.m.
Monday's drama showed how the punishing Bering Sea coast can easily change the 1,000-mile race to Nome.
"The coast is a villain," four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King said as he prepared his dog team to leave Unalakleet, the checkpoint 90 miles before Koyuk.
"It's when you're exhausted and the weather really beats you up."
It's always a challenge being in the front, he added. If another team is ahead of you, your dogs can smell them and follow their scent. If not, following the trail markers is up to you.
Petit was in the lead when he left Shaktoolik not long after midnight Monday, headed for Koyuk, 50 miles away. The Iditarod describes this leg of the race as "bleak, flat, and deadly monotonous." It's prone to fierce winds.
According to the race's GPS tracker, Petit veered to the east between the two checkpoints, toward the coast and away from the trail. Then he turned around and returned to the route.
When Petit reached Koyuk, he told the Iditarod Insider that his dogs had a rough trip mentally into the checkpoint. "It was tough going for a long time," he said.
"On the way to Iditarod it was the same type of deal but there's trees and stuff — it's not wide-opened with another race's stakes out there," he said, likely referring to the stakes from the Iron Dog snowmachine race that passed through the same area in February.
Zack Steer, the Iditarod's logistics coordinator, said the trail markers from that race remain in the area.
He said the Iditarod trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk is marked with 1,000 wooden stakes — about double the regular amount. The wooden stakes' tips are neon-orange and wrapped in a strip of reflective tape. A blue ribbon is tied to each one.
Steer said the Iron Dog's trail markers look similar to Iditarod's, but they don't have the blue ribbon. He said he heard there's also a local hunting trail on the sea ice.
Mark Nordman, the Iditarod race director and race marshal, said this year's trail between Shaktoolik and Koyuk differed from last year's.
Typically, the trail cuts across the Norton Sound ice. But, before this year's race, Nordman said he expected a lack of ice in the area to push the trail closer to the coast. Ultimately, he said Monday, a route was put in about halfway between those two options.
"There was a bunch of jumbled ice and stuff that they've gone around," Nordman said.
King said the trail up the Bering Sea coast typically changes at least a little each year, depending on where the jumbled ice is. The trail requires mushers — often tired at this point in the race — to pay constant attention, he said. Winds and blowing snow can only further complicate things.
"We got a musher memorandum thing today from the race manager saying the trail out of (Shaktoolik) winds around, literally curlicue-ing around jumbled ice so it really does take paying attention (to) because it can seem like you're going entirely the wrong way," King said.
Compared to last year, when Seavey won the Iditarod in record time on a hard and fast trail, this year's trail is slow and snowy.
Nordman said he believed those trail conditions have worked to Petit's and Ulsom's advantage. Last year, Petit placed third and Ulsom fourth. Nordman said the mushers' teams are often trotting, picking up one foot after the other in, sort of, a quick walk.
"I know some people have said Joar's team looked like a bunch of little buffalo just pounding across the tundra," he said.
Seavey's dogs, he said, excel on a hard trail — they can lope more, moving their front legs together and their back legs together, almost like a hop. Perfect for last year, he said, but not for this year's deep snow.
"Last year's trail was set up perfectly for Mitch's type of running," Nordman said.
"His dogs could lope a little more and I think that the trail coming up the Yukon (River) this year and the softer trail, you can't lope. It'd be like you trying to run in sand versus just walking briskly in sand."
Each of this year's top three teams so far — Ulsom, Petit and Seavey — rely on different racing styles, said Karen Ramstead, a former Iditarod competitor and the race judge in Unalakleet. The dogs' personalities, she said, reflect those of the mushers.
"If you look at Nic's team they're kind of wild and a little crazy and out of control and that's a lot like Nic," she said on Monday. "And Joar's team is kind of quiet and driven. And Mitch's is a disciplined, real disciplined, focused dog team."
Ramstead said if Petit wants to win, he will have to figure out how to keep a level-head and fix things after a major mishap. Meanwhile, she said, Ulsom appears to have a "solid, lovely-looking dog team."
"What just happened going across to Koyuk could blow it wide open," she said.